Volvo XC90: Still best
FEW new cars of any sort are as comprehensively talented as the Volvo XC90, writes William Scholes.
Volvo's jumboiest vehicle has been the finest large family SUV since it started to appear on Northern Ireland's roads in 2016.
That's when the second generation XC90 reached us, and to make sure it stays ahead of the plush seven-seats-in-three-rows competition, Volvo has just given its flagship a few upgrades.
Only the most committed Volvoscenti will spot the changes, from the outside at least. There's a new grille and lower front bumper, for example, along with some new alloy wheels and paint colours.
Oh, and the Inscription trim cars now have a strip of chrome that runs the width of the rear bumper.
It's the most minor of minor tweaks, in other words. But who can blame Volvo? The XC90 was already the best looking of its breed, and needs no improvement.
The exterior design neatly balances big premium car confidence with low-key subtlety. It's a classy, feel-good piece of work.
It lacks the hubris that you get with a BMW X5, Audi Q7, whatever the Mercedes rival is called at the moment, or the Land Rover Discovery with the weird number plate arrangement.
Climbing aboard the XC90 is like entering your living room, only if it's like mine the Volvo is probably better furnished and has better seats.
Large windows and a commanding seating position for all passengers make this a very pleasant place to sit; for ultimate comfort and luxury, specify your XC90 with a glass roof, one of the lighter shades of leather upholstery and pale wood trim.
Volvo's seats are, correctly, famed for their quality, and the XC90 is no different. There are seven of them in this car.
Those in the third row, while a tighter fit for lankier frames than those in the middle, at least offer the possibility of carrying compliant six-footers on shortish journeys.
Manipulating the middle row of seats to allow passengers to gain access to the rear-most pews is straightforward in the Volvo. Each of the three chairs slides and tilts independently.
This is important, as some competitors require an engineering qualification or the strength of a South Africa prop, or both, to operate their seat mechanisms.
This, then, is one of the reasons families love the XC90, and an example of the attention to detail that puts the Volvo at the top of the SUV family tree.
The interior is richly appointed and beautifully built. Volvo's iPad-a-like portrait-orientated touchscreen dominates the centre of a dashboard which is distinguished by its general lack of buttons and clutter, an aesthetic that's perfectly in keeping with the car's cool Swedish vibe.
Climbing aboard the XC90 is like entering your living room, only if it's like mine the Volvo is probably better furnished and has better seats
Even with all seven seats erect, you still have a healthy boot, with a volume of 302 litres; fold the two back seats and that swells to 680 litres; drop the middle row as well, and you have a cavernous 1,856 litres.
The XC90 is something of a calling card in Volvo's mission to stop anyone being killed in an accident in one of its cars by next year, and few cars are as safe.
As well as an incredibly strong body and a plethora of airbags, the Volvo has 'pilot assist', which means the car can accelerate, brake and steer itself, and other safety tech includes active cruise control, automatic emergency city braking, lane-keep assist and pedestrian, cyclist and large animal detection.
All XC90 models have four-wheel-drive and an eight-speed automatic gearbox. A further example of Volvo's quietly confident we'll-do-it-our-own-way approach can be seen in how all of the engines are 2.0-litre four-cylinder units, when rivals offer six-cylinder engines.
There are two petrol versions, badged T5 and T6, but these are something of a niche choice in this sector because of their relative thirst.
More popular is the T8 'Twin Engine' plug-in hybrid. This is expensive, and adds a turbo and a supercharger to the petrol engine for a throaty 303bhp, aided by a 87bhp electric motor.
As is the way with these complicated hybrid powertrains, the T8 Twin Engine can achieve a set of startling figures, though not necessarily all at the same time: 0-62mph can be dispatched in just 5.8 seconds, while CO2 emissions are rated at a company user-pleasing 52g/km.
Fuel consumption can be as strong as 113mpg and a new bigger battery means it can do a theoretical - and very precise sounding - 28.6 miles in electric-only mode.
However, the most popular engine will be the new mild-hybrid diesel, which Volvo is branding as a B5.
Its arrival is the single biggest change in the XC90 upgrade programme. Replacing the old D5-badged diesel, the B5 sports a 232bhp diesel engine assisted by the conglomeration of a 48-volt battery, a kinetic energy recovery system and an integrated starter-generator.
Essentially, when you brake or come off the throttle the system harvests energy and stores it in the battery, from where it is directed to subtly boost the engine, spin-up the turbocharger, restart the engine and power ancillaries.
The net effect of this electrification is said to be fuel consumption around 10 per cent better than the D5, with CO2 also falling.
In practice, on the road this is a peach of a drivetrain, and perfectly matched to the car. It's brisk enough - 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds - and a healthy wodge of 354lb.ft of torque means the XC90 has the sort of easygoing gait that typifies the best of these large SUVs.
The engine is quiet, woofling away somewhere ahead of your toes as you settle into the calm and comfort of Volvo life.
Though it steers precisely, resists roll in the corners admirably and generally feels lighter on its toes than you might expect - it can be hustled along at deceptive pace, in other words - the XC90 is, most emphatically, not a sports car.
A large, seven-seat SUV should offer comfort and refinement, and be a soothing balm amid the trials and tribulations. The big Volvo does that, and then some
It's all the better for it, too. I'm firmly of the view that these vehicles are at their best when they are focused on being family-friendly transport.
If you really want a quick, sporty large SUV, have a look at the Porsche Cayenne or something warmed up by BMW's M Division; or for a full adrenaline shot, try the maniacal but exquisite Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio.
But those are outliers; a large, seven-seat SUV should offer comfort and refinement, and be a soothing balm amid the trials and tribulations. The big Volvo does that, and then some.
Few cars are as completely fit for purpose as the XC90. It is still the best large family wagon you can buy, and one of the very best new cars on sale today.
AT A GLANCE
Volvo XC90 B5 diesel R-Design
Price: £56,585. £62,235 as tested, with: Xenium pack (panoramic glass roof, 360-degree camera and automatic parking) £1,600; Harman Kardon upgraded audio £850; winter pack (including heated windscreen and steering wheel) £525; four-zone climate control, third-row air conditioning and power-folding second-row headrests £900; family pack (integrated booster seat, power child locks and integrated sun blinds) £275; Intellisafe surround (blind spot monitoring with steer assist, cross-traffic alert with autobrake and rear collision mitigation) £500; and premium metallic paint £1,000.
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder mild-hybrid diesel turbo, eight-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel-drive; 232bhp, 354lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 137mph, 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 37.7mpg-44.1mpg (WLTP combined), 154g/km
Car tax: £855 in first year, then £465 annually
Benefit in kind: 37 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (97/87/72/94), 2015